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July 24, 2014

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‘Ka’ performer’s passion for acrobatic artistry lives on

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David Fox

Sarah (Sasoun) Guillot-Guyard after an end-of-session performance with her students at Cirquefit in Las Vegas on Saturday, June 29, 2013, just hours before her death.

Final Battle scene

‘Ka’ at MGM Grand

Sarah Guyard-Guillot, left, and Sami Tiaumassi perform as Launch slideshow »

Among the passions of Sarah Guyard-Guillot was teaching the art of acrobatics to children. Comments on the memorial website ForSasoun.com launched Monday morning bubble over with parents praising her gift for teaching.

As one said, “Your time here was too short, your energy lives on in the children you taught. I remember the first time I saw you teaching them the tightrope. You said to them, ‘It does not come easy. You have to fight for it.’ ”

Two days after Guyard-Guillot’s death following a fall during a performance of “Ka” at MGM Grand, a longtime friend has invited the students she taught at the Cirquefit fitness academy to train with him.

Zoltan “Uldi” Hadju, who moved to Las Vegas in 2005 and, along with Guyard-Guillot, was a member of the original cast of “Ka,” has offered to teach the late acrobat’s students at his own White Palms Academy. Born in a small town in Hungary, Hadju became a top gymnast on the Hungarian National Team and later moved to Canada, where he helped coach Olympic gold medalist Kyle Shewfelt.

Hadju produced and starred in the movie “White Palms,” for which his academy in Las Vegas is named. Having retired from performing, he operates White Palms, where he says that he hopes to keep the art of acrobatic entertainment alive.

Hadju and his wife, Vanda, were very close friends of Guyard-Guillot’s. Reached Monday afternoon, Hadju said it was too soon for his wife or him to speak of the loss of Guyard-Guillot, a 31-year-old who left behind children ages 8 and 5.

Earlier in the day, message posted on the Cirquefit website read: “We would like to make sure that her Cirquefit legacy of teaching children the circus arts is not forgotten, and we have been lucky enough that a good friend of Sarah’s, who has his own fully equipped circus school, has offered to take on all the students that Sarah had and follow the exact curriculum they were signed up for.” Anyone interested in accepting the gesture was led to Hadju.

As friends peppered the new memorial site with messages of sorrow, praise and condolences for Guyard-Guillot, occupational safety inspectors from Nevada OSHA have begun investigating what went wrong at MGM Grand’s 9:30 p.m. “Ka” performance Saturday.

On Monday, a spokeswoman said the decision to cancel at least a week’s worth of performances was entirely Cirque’s. The company can restart shows at any time during the OSHA investigation without any authorization from the agency, and the investigation (which includes onsite inspections and interviews of members of the show’s production team and a review of the footage shot by the house's video crew) is focused entirely on “Ka.” No other Cirque productions are under such review, and all continue to perform on their usual schedules.

Neither Nevada OSHA nor Cirque said they had an idea of when the investigation would be finished and the findings made public. During Saturday’s tragic performance, Guyard-Guillot plunged at the least 50 and possibly as far as 100 feet down the theater’s vertical stage — known as the Battle Wall — during the show’s climactic Final Battle scene.

For the act, Guyard-Guillot (who spent 22 of her 31 years performing and studying circus-styled acts) was buckled into a harness that was fastened to a cable wire and operated by a portable electric device called a “winch” motor. For this scene, the harnesses are lowered from a platform high above the stage, and the artists dramatically slip into the vest-like protective gear while facing the audience. The cables are attached at waistline to the back of the costumes, and performers can navigate their direction by using hand controls.

Eight artists perform the act, and the cable and harness allow the performers to bound along the darkened, 70-foot wall in a fanciful battle that is played out up and down the stage. Performers push free and vault from the stage, which gradually moves to a vertical position in front of the audience for an aerial-like view of the action.

Click to enlarge photo

Sarah Guillot-Guyard

Audience members who witnessed the act Saturday night say Guyard-Guillot broke free while still wearing her harness and plummeted to the pit below the stage. The distance from the stage to the floor below is 25 feet, and an inflatable pit and safety nets are in that space not seen by the audience. It is not known if Guyard-Guillot missed the air bag and the nets entirely. One eyewitness said she cart-wheeled in the air as she plummeted down the wall.

During the performance, which features a number of gravity-defying acts, “Ka” artists are equipped with several varieties of harnesses and connected by many types of cables (one of the more common is a quarter-inch wire, which can sustain weight up to 4,000 pounds).

A description of the equipment and safety apparatus posted online by Cirque states: “There are more than 160 harnesses for the artists, comprised of 21 different types. Each harness is hand-fitted to the individual artist and is inspected weekly, daily, before and during each show.

Acrobatic safety nets are used for artists falling less than 20 feet. For falls over 20 feet, air bags are used in addition to the safety nets.

There are a total of 18 winches used to pull two safety nets into the many different configurations needed for the show. Each winch rope (5/8-inch diameter) has a tensile strength of over 30,000 pounds.”

The show replaces the equipment on an as-needed basis. The production’s rigging crew performs the regular inspections. One longtime Las Vegas entertainment figure who is an expert on production shows of all ilk described the incident as “incredibly unusual,” and it is just that.

As the L.A. Times noted Monday in its story about the tragedy, Cirque has experienced misfortune onstage before, including the 2009 death of artist Oleksandr Zhurov, 24, after he fell off a trampoline during training in Montreal and suffered head trauma, and injuries during “Corteo” in Portland, Ore., and “La Nouba” in Orlando, Fla.

Among the serious accidents in Las Vegas: In April 2006 and again in November 2007, performers in “Zumanity” at New York-New York were seriously injured while performing an aerial silk act (the woman in the earlier incident wound up suing the company); and last week during “Michael Jackson One,” a slack-rope artist fell to the stage and suffered a mild concussion.

But never before has an artist in the company, founded by Guy Laliberte in 1984, died from an accident onstage. The reason behind this tragedy, the greatest in Cirque’s long history, is a mystery being solved now.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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